Agency HR execs break down what millennials are asking them for

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Credit: Millennials probably also want better stock art. || Andrejs Zemdega/iStock

I interviewed several HR leaders last month. Here's an overview of those conversations beginning with the latest generation of employees instigating change.

One agency leader said they have four generations of employees working there. I see this myself when I visit agencies and see the age spectrum.

Marjan Panah, chief talent officer McCann Worldgroup, said that 40 percent of their employees are millennials and 66 percent of new hires are millennials. A common theme among industry observers is that these younger workers have markedly different needs than other generations.

For one, they feel deserving of quick advancement in their careers. They want to know what boxes to check to get to the next level quickly and often crave "on demand feedback" because internal mobility is so important.

Work/life balance
The millennial mantra "work/life balance" was unknown to me 10 years ago. It wasn't part of Boomers' work ethic; it used to be all nose to the grindstone stuff. Today's employees don't live to work. Work coexists alongside other interests, passions, family and friends.

Julie Hanser, vice president of talent development at Barefoot Proximity, prefers to call work/life balance "work/life integration" to remove the implication of equality. You orchestrate all the elements competing for your time.

Flexible hours and working from home
I'm hearing more candidates asking about flexibility to manage kids' schedules or long commutes. They want to work from home or adjust work schedules. Some agencies accommodate this for more tenured employees but this is rare.

Advertising is a full contact sport requiring people to collaborate real time in person. Ideation requires presence. There are a few jobs that can be performed remotely, but they tend to be more procedural, technical or routine such as traffic and media buying.

One agency weighs the odds of success with flex by asking: 1) Is the individual capable of working remotely, 2) Will it work for the team and 3) Is it financially viable?

Unfortunately, other industries competing for advertising talent are much more accommodating for remote workers. One candidate I know was an agency refugee. He now enjoys working with IBM iX from a home office in LA and travels frequently.

We're in a candidate driven market
Agencies are competing with a much broader playing field these days. As I mentioned in my article, Ad Age: "Sucking the life out," there is a drain on the agency talent pool to other industries. Employees hear the siren song of tech companies and large consultancies not to mention the client side.

Ad agencies still have the competitive advantage for individuals to make an immediate impact on a client's business and to influence a range of communication strategies. You're not just a cog in a wheel.
Retention, however, continues to be a problem. Some sources peg turnover at 30 percent annually.
Turnover seems to be significantly higher in New York because there are so many options compared to a smaller advertising market. In the smaller markets with fewer relevant job options, defections are more often precipitated by an out of town move.

Holding companies try to take the long view with talent, trying to find a place elsewhere in the organization for someone who's topped out where he/she is.

Stronger purpose and meaningful work
Today's workers also want a stronger purpose in the work they do. Some agencies effectively respond to this by allocating a certain percentage of work time to pursue passion projects.

Others take on agency-wide pro-bono projects which give back to the community. There is an overwhelmingly positive response to this as people volunteer to create campaigns for not-for-profit accounts like PETA or the Alzheimer's Association. Years ago, many of these agency pro-bono projects were transparent attempts to create edgier work for creative awards than their paying clients allowed.

Even with these measures in place, are agencies up to the challenges of attracting and retaining top talent in the future?

The pace of the agency business is not abating. Pressure on HR departments to find good people fast is immense. One person I interviewed said she needs to set expectations about the time needed for the recruiting process.

She mused that she wished there was an app like Alexa to ask for a candidate with specific specs and have the ideal person delivered overnight. Are you listening Amazon? Maybe someday.

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